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Lest we forget … the brutal St Patrick’s Day bashing

16 March 2020 No Comment

 This cautionary tale of corruption and violence should be told again and again


Tuesday is Saint Patrick’s Day, which is an occasion to celebrate — but it also marks one of the most infamous incidents in Australian political history.

On March 17, 1948, in Brisbane, Australia’s first and only Communist Party MP,  Frederick (“Fred”) Woolnough Paterson, was savagely bashed by a plainclothes ­policeman — almost certainly on the direct orders of authoritarian ALP premier Edward Michael (“Ned”) Hanlon.

This brutal attack occurred while Paterson was legally observing a march of striking unionists on the streets of Brisbane.

As a result, the person widely known throughout Queensland as “the people’s champion” sustained serious head injuries from which he never fully recovered.

This former Rhodes scholar, divinity student and long-serving radical barrister — who campaigned especially for the poor and the dispossessed — was the Communist Party member for Bowen in Queensland’s one-house parliament from 1944 to 1950. Throughout his career, he also assisted anti-fascist immigrants, including Italian cane cutters in north Queensland.

A visit to Northern Ireland in 1921, while still a divinity student at Oxford, had been the turning point in his life. Paterson saw that, in the slums of Belfast, the poverty-stricken Protestants and Catholics were constantly attacking each other, instead of joining forces to fight the common enemies of poverty and oppression. It was this experience that caused Paterson to become a committed communist and, especially in the 1940s, an effective radical activist in ALP-dominated Queensland.

To handle a highly disruptive, statewide railway strike, on March 9, 1948  Hanlon rushed through the Queensland Legislative Assembly a draconian ‘Industrial Law Amendment Act.’ This punitive legislation prohibited participation in illegal strikes and imposed severe penalties.

The Queensland Labor premier personally attributed the impetus for the legislation to Paterson’s adroit assistance to striking trade unionists, which, Hanlon said, had enabled them to “get around the law”.

Indeed, in a moment of unusual candour, Hanlon admitted: “As a matter of fact, this bill might have been called the Paterson bill.”

In parliament, the communist MLA for Bowen had attacked the act as “the greatest scab-herding, strikebreaking piece of legislation ever introduced by a Labor government anywhere in Australia”.

As ‘The Courier-Mail’ editorialised on March 10, 1948: “These powers are the most far-reaching ever given to the police in any state in Australia.”

In my biography of Fred Paterson, ‘The People’s Champion’ (University of Queensland Press), I revealed that the perpetrator of the assault on Paterson was a Queensland detective sergeant, JJ (“Jack”) Mahony.

On the afternoon of March 17, the Queensland ALP caucus met and unanimously decided that no inquiry would be held into the bashing of Paterson, which had occurred earlier that St Patrick’s Day. Indeed, no charges were laid against Paterson or the detective sergeant involved. Hence the assault could not be tested in court.

A key member of Hanlon’s staunchly anti-communist cabinet was deputy premier Vince Gair, who after Hanlon’s death ­became premier of Queensland from 1952 until 1957 — when, in a deeply acrimonious split in Labor ranks, he was expelled from the party. The heavy-drinking Gair was later elected to the Senate, where he led the Democratic Labor Party from 1965 to 1973.

In 1974, Gough Whitlam controversially appointed Gair ambassador to Ireland and the Holy See, which led to his expulsion from the DLP.

Taking Hanlon and Gair to task on the day after Paterson’s bashing, the maverick independent MP for the state seat of Mundingburra, Tom Aikens, called the attack on the Communist Party member for Bowen a case of “attempted murder”.

In parliament, Aikens asked the following questions:

“Is it the intention of the government to prosecute Detective Mahony for attempted murder or any other charge under the criminal code for brutally smashing Mr F. Paterson, MLA, with a baton on the head from behind, in Edward Street, yesterday?

“Did Mahony so brutally attack Paterson under instructions from the government?

“If so, what did the government hope to gain by Paterson’s murder or serious injury?”

The premier’s response merely consisted of a gratuitous personal attack on Aikens and his alleged lack of courage.

If such a bashing of an MP occurred in Australia today, there would almost certainly be a state parliamentary inquiry, a royal commission, or a formal inquiry instituted by the Senate.

Yet, in the ALP-controlled Queensland of the late 1940s, an extremely serious assault upon a dissident member of parliament was greeted with official silence.

A year after Paterson’s bashing, Hanlon’s ‘Electoral District Act (1949)’ created a zonal malapportionment of major proportions, which Joh Bjelke-Petersen later tinkered with to his own ­advantage.

In 1950 — at the behest of Hanlon and the Queensland ALP — Paterson’s seat of Bowen was redistributed out of existence.

Paterson had no chance of winning the state seat of Whitsunday for which he stood. He soon moved to Sydney where, despite his continuing debilitating injuries, he worked part-time as a legal adviser to the Australian Communist Party.

It is difficult to disagree with Paterson’s own assessment of the significance of his bashing.

As the Communist Party MP said late in his life (he died in 1977, aged 80): “The story of this action — and the bashing of other people on this day — is one that should be told again and again, to expose the ­corruption of some members of the police force and the corruption of some government administrators.”

What followed in Queensland for the next few decades — corruption at the top level of government and at the highest ranks of Queensland’s police force — is a cautionary tale that deserves to be remembered, not just in Queensland but throughout the nation.

Professor Ross Fitzgerald’s most recent book is a memoir, Fifty Years Sober: An Alcoholic’s Journey (Hybrid).

The Australian, March 16, 2020, p 14. 

Dear Editor

‘ Lest we forget… The brutal St. Patrick’s Day bashing that changed Queensland’ (Ross Fitzgerald, The Australian, March 16, 2020, p 14) was a great read, not least for those of us stuck at home by the coronavirus.

Thanks Ross and thanks to The Australian. More such rich fodder to keep our minds fed will be most welcomed over the weeks ahead.

Dr Peter Smith

Lake Illawarra, NSW

March  18, 2020.

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